I thought I’d lost this interview / conversation I did with Emmalee Crane back in 2010 for the Relaxed Machinery Ning Community. I found it via the wayback machine on Archive.org. Reposting here as she is one of my favorite ambient / drone artists. She hasn’t released anything new in several years - but her three albums are all very good and come highly recommended from me. http://music.emmaleecrane.com/
Kinetoscope .: 029 :. An Interview with Emmalee Crane
Posted by jkn on August 31, 2010 at 9:00am
Emmalee Crane is a drone musician that has caught my ear recently. She uses an array of woodwinds, analog synths, circuit-bent gadgets, and found sounds to create her ambient, orchestral drone music. Her debut album, Crux, was released in 2009 on the Streetlight Farm label and she’ll soon be releasing her second album, Formantine.
Emmalee took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions in depth. We emailed each others answers back and forth so that each question has a bit of a conversation going.
I truly enjoy Emmalee’s music and had a wonderful time with this interview! Thank you, Emmalee!
jkn: Based on the bio on your website ( http://emmaleecrane.com ) you obviously were in the school band or orchestra playing many woodwinds over the years. Was there someone then that was a big influence on you getting into music? Your parents, or a particular teacher that sparked your interest in playing? Or did you “just know” that music was something you’d be doing and you pushed yourself?
ec: Well it definitely started with my Mom - she’s a piano and clarinet teacher. I remember when I was maybe five or six watching her giving lessons to older kids in our house. She taught me the piano when I was really young, but I was always more fascinated by the woodwinds. Not the sound necessarily at first - I think it was more the beauty of the instruments. The oboe especially. When I started exploring the different sounds more I got even more excited about the oboe because it seemed to be the loudest and most piercing, which was important in a noisy house!
So I guess I knew early on that music was going to be my thing, so I kept at it and obviously my family encouraged me too. I did play in the school orchestra and eventually in the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, which was an amazing experience and really motivated me to make music my life.
jkn: So wonderful that your mom was a piano and clarinet teacher. I know I started taking lessons from my grandma when I was five - she was definitely a major inspiration to me. She was the organist at the same church in our small town for 65 years and played just about everyone’s weddings, funerals, the fire departmen’s “breakfast with santa”, etc… And when I got to fifth grade I knew I wanted to play trumpet - and when the teacher gave it to me to try and she said just try and make a note and hold it for as long as you can… and I made a really good sound on it and held it forever - until the teacher said - hey you can stop now.
ec: Ha - I can definitely picture that!
jkn: Ok - I do have to laugh at your comment about the oboe being the loudest and most piercing! Hilarious! Wow, to be in the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra! That had to be an elite group!
ec: You definitely had to be a good player and be committed, but it wasn’t so much pressure that it wasn’t fun. I made some great friends there, and it’s where I really learned how to take cues from other players. I’m a really bad timekeeper on my own. I don’t have much sense of rhythm - I just kind of play the next note when I feel like it’s time, not when the beat says so.
jkn: When did you start tearing apart electronics and circuit-bending? Why?
ec: That’s probably from the family again, my Dad this time. He was outnumbered by girls in the house (I have an older sister, no brothers) so he was always kind of trying to find something we could do together - and he isn’t very musical. He tried various sports and crafts and we weren’t really interested, then one day he brought home this crazy electronics kit so we thought “okay, we’ll let him have this.” My sister wasn’t that into it but played along - I was completely fascinated though. After we’d been through all the projects in this kit - making radios and light sensitive switches and things - I started taking apart old toys and trying to make hybrid circuits. Then I learned there was a whole culture out there called circuit-bending and I just started getting all the info I could and learning what could be done. It can be frustrating sometimes but mostly I find it pretty relaxing - a glass of wine and a soldering iron and my evening is complete!
jkn: I love this story. I’m so mechanically challenged… I’m definitely the non-handiest person you’ll ever meet. Soldering irons and I just don’t get along.
jkn: What’s your favorite thing you’ve circuit-bent?
ec: Probably a Casio SK-1 keyboard. It was this amazing little sampling keyboard from the eighties that was really cheap - it only had a few sounds of its own, but you could sample anything and play it back on the keys. I basically just mangled the internal sounds but it was the first time I’d tried on a real instrument - before then I’d just been messing around with toys.
jkn: I definitely remember the SK-1 - and I’ve seen so many photos on the net of circuit bent ones. While I can’t circuit bend or build modular synth modules… I find them utterly fascinating.
ec: I love modular synths too. I mean, it’s completely amazing what you can do with plugins now, and that you can get what would have been an entire room full of synths in a little window on the screen, but there’s just nothing like the feel of hardware and patch cables. It’s almost like I feel mean and ungrateful sometimes using little monophonic bleepy boxes when there’s so much amazing software out there - but it’s just not the same. It needs to be tactile.
jkn: You moved from your childhood home of Toronto to San Francisco, what prompted this move?
ec: That was for school. I went to Berkeley to study music history and really just never left - I met so many great people, and it was surprisingly easy to find work too, so I just stayed. I still go back to Toronto quite a lot - the family is still there. I’m not a thoroughbred Canadian though - my Dad is from Vermont and one set of grandparents is in North Carolina so it’s not like I’m breaking with some grand family tradition!
jkn: Debussy has a very special place in my heart, why is Debussy one of your favorites?
ec: I guess because he was wasn’t afraid to break rules - his music was very experimental, sometimes even weird. There was a lot of tradition and “right ways to do things” in his period, and he basically just rebelled against it. In a way his thinking translates well to the modern studio - if you read recording forums like gearslutz.com or a lot of the books about recording and mixing, people often throw out all these rules about how you have to use this type of compressor on this instrument, or this brand of preamp with this brand of mic, or that you have to pan things in a certain way. If Debussy was in a studio today I think he would just say “look, if it sounds right, it is right.” I think a lot of people forget that.
jkn: Well, you know a lot more about Debussy than I do - I think I just connect with him on that feeling level and now that you describe a bit about his attitudes I can easily see why I connect with him. I also connect so much because Claire de Lune was my mom’s favorite song on piano and I learned to play it for her when fairly young - and the emotions that go along with the song combined with the beauty of the song, well, it just means a lot to me.
I totally agree with you on “look, if it sounds right, it is right.” To me there are no right or wrong tools or techniques or instruments. It’s very nice to know rules, to know ways of doing things, to learn from people - but there’s nothing wrong with exploring with what you have, trying something different or doing it “wrong” according to the experts. What ultimately matters is the music.
jkn: When not recording music… what do you do for fun? For work?
ec: My other main interest is astronomy (which I guess is pretty obvious). I live in the worst city for it with all the fog, but you don’t have to drive far outside to get clear skies. The studio is way out in the countryside so I always take the telescope when I go up there. Work is a few different things - all music related. My main sources of income are as a session musician and a music librarian.
jkn: That’s actually pretty awesome that your studio is out in the countryside away from your home. To be able to get away from the city, all the clutter and distractions - I imagine that must be helpful. And it’s fantastic you make a living doing music - I rarely run across anyone that does.
ec: I guess the real dream is to be able to make a living just from your own music - I’m nowhere near that yet, probably never will be, but it’s not that important really. The thing that matters is that we’re able to get our music down on tape and easily distributed to anyone who wants to listen to it - it wasn’t that long ago that only a privileged few people could even do that.
jkn: What’s currently in your studio? What are your favorite instruments/gear that you use?
ec: My studio at home is fairly modest - I live in a pretty noisy part of town, so I can’t really do much serious recording there. I have a Mac and Logic setup, lots of instruments (mainly woodwinds, but also a cello, a couple of guitars and an Access Virus keyboard). I also have a rack of assorted gear that I’ve collected over the years - favorite would have to be the Culture Vulture since I love distortion so much. There isn’t much I don’t put distortion on, either using the Culture Vulture or guitar pedals.
jkn: I’m going to have to look up that Culture Vulture! Mac/Logic here also - although I’m relatively new to both. All of my previous recordings were either 4-track cassette and then pc with Vegas 2.0 and Soundforge. This combination worked for me for a long time until that pc broke beyond repair - I really just need a good way to record audio for the most part.
jkn: Describe writing your “typical” song. I realize that every song can be approached from a different way - and the techniques aren’t always the same, but I think most musicians have certain things they routinely do, ways of writing. Do you typically record midi notes into a sequencer, or record audio more as in recording to tape? Do you often start writing on a certain instrument and expand out from there? As an example, I primarily record audio live to tracks as if it were a tape recorder, and occasionally dabble in sequencing (probably more so now that I’m using Logic) - but I personally love that feeling of shaping the sound as I’m recording and letting the flaws and imperfections that come with playing live show through. That’s just me. There’s no right or wrong to music.
ec: I don’t really do MIDI very much - usually I’m recording live to tape and just overdubbing. If you look at the Logic project for a typical song it’s probably 80% audio tracks, even if it’s coming from synths. I’ll pretty much always start with a drone - I’ll maybe play a sustained note on something and loop it then improvise on top. I don’t often get inspired in the studio though - it usually strikes me when I’m nowhere near an instrument. It makes life quite difficult sometimes since it’s hard to quickly write down music that has no lyrics or obvious melody. Some songs I’ve written entirely with just a pencil and staff paper though.
jkn: Agreed, I seem to record much like you do - using Logic like a tape deck to record audio. It’s just the way that feels right to me. And yes - inspiration seems to hit me anywhere but when I have time to work on it in my studio. So I keep notes in an odd shorthand - or try to record quick sketches of the idea before I forget them.
jkn: Family? Married? Pets? I know your bio lists Bash, your dog. What kind of dog?
ec: I actually lost Bash earlier this year. He was a dalmatian. He was pretty old and couldn’t really move around well anymore. I should remove him from my bio, but it’s sort of like he’s still here so I haven’t yet. No, not married, still happily single. I have an older sister who’s still in Toronto.
jkn: I’m truly sorry about Bash! Honestly, I still refer to all the dogs we’ve had - we’ve rescued 4 dogs since my wife and I were married. Our most recent one is an 8 year old blind dachshund named Peanut we adopted last November. She’s a wonder. We had London (a cocker mix) from literally a few days after we were married until she died 15 years later (she was 17).
jkn: Let’s pretend you’ve got all the money in the world and a studio space as big as you need it to be… what dream instruments would you have in there?
ec: Definitely a grand piano and lots of brass. I’m not the best brass player, but again I just think the instruments are so beautiful. I’d really love a whole rack full of vintage compressors too, especially a Fairchild! It would be great to have some antique pump organs as well if I had the space.
jkn: Yes - I’d also love a grand piano. I love my small Yamaha upright, but it’s not a grand. Of course - I’d need a whole lot more house to have the grand. I’d also love a drumset, a cello, and a few other things. Vintage compressors and pump organs! What wonderful choices!
ec: Ha - a drumset is probably one of the few things I don’t want! But yes, I love all the vintage and antique gear - I especially love getting really old instruments and just watching them for a while and imagining all the different music that’s been played on them.
jkn: Your new album, Formantine, is approaching completion. Would you like to talk about the album, how long you’ve been working on it, inspirations, when it’s planned for release, where the title comes from, etc…?
ec: I guess I’ve been working on Formantine for most of this year, though a couple of tracks are left over ideas from Crux that I never fully developed. It’s not shockingly different from Crux but I guess it’s turned out more what I expected Crux to be like originally, a bit less melodic overall and more layered. Maybe less structured. Ironically I think it has less improvisation though - I pretty much heard the entire album finished in my head before I even started tracking anything.
Formantine is a word I thought I’d made up at first - I just glued together “formant” and “tine” to try to evoke a feeling of simple, gentle music that’s actually grounded in complex theory and heavily processed. Then I googled it and it turns out that it’s the name of a castle in Scotland, which made it even more perfect, since classical architecture is very inspirational to me as well. There are certain times when I’ll just hear perfect music in my head - often it’s while I’m asleep and I forget it as soon as I wake up, but it also happens when I’m looking at a really intricate ceiling or an archway or some other feature in an old building.
jkn: I for one am anxiously awaiting Formantine’s release. It’s very interesting to know you had the album in your head before you started tracking. I can relate to that - I’m sure many of our readers can also. Love the origins of the name Formantine.
jkn: Why drone music?
ec: I’m fascinated by simplicity - I love that you can take a single sustained note and still convey rhythm and emotion through dynamics. I don’t think drone is a very well defined genre, and I’m probably not helping by using more melody that would typically be considered drone, but I still think it fits. All of my songs are based around one endless note or chord.
jkn: I’ve always been fascinated by drones. Even my earliest playing on piano somewhere before I was ten when I was trying to first experiment with “writing” - my music was very drone, and very rhythmic, and rather loud. I do consider your music drone music - genre names to me are just general guidelines and they quickly become blurred as people add and subtract elements from other kinds of music.
jkn: How did you connect with your label, Streetlight Farm?
ec: That was a lucky coincidence - through a mutual friend. Miles who owns the label has lived in San Francisco for a long time and is friends with someone I know from school. One night we were at the same gathering out in town and started talking about music - I think he’d just discovered Stars Of The Lid and of course they are one of my favorite bands. So we just decided we’d try collaborating and see what happened.
jkn: I think you two are very lucky to have found each other and when something works, keep going!
ec: Definitely. It’s really been a great opportunity.
jkn: What’s the best place you’ve ever visited in the world?
ec: I don’t want to sound boring, but I think it really is San Francisco - I just love it here. I’m not actually that well travelled though - I’ve been to England and Spain and lots of places around the US but nowhere extreme. I’m planning to take a trip a bit further afield next year, maybe to Australia.
jkn: Believe me - you’re far less boring than I am!
ec: Oh I don’t believe that!
jkn: What’s the future hold for you? Where do you want to go with your music?
ec: I definitely want to keep making albums - I have lots more ideas to get down on tape before I’m done. I’ve struggled with the idea of taking my music on stage - I love playing live but it would be difficult to translate the songs I’ve done so far into a live setting as they are just too layered. Often at home I’ll just perform to myself by looping oboe sounds through lots of reverb and distortion - I’m not sure if anyone would actually be interested in watching me do that, but that’s probably the sort of thing I’ll do if I play live. I’d also like the opportunity to do some soundtrack work one day, especially if it was for a horror movie!
jkn: Is there anything else you wish I had asked you?
ec: I don’t know - I know I’m quite a private person so I probably wouldn’t invite many other questions about myself. Maybe some general knowledge trivia questions?
jkn: Ok - for the grand prize, who is… ha, I’m kidding. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer and open up a bit about yourself and your music. I truly enjoy talking to other musicians, especially those that I admire so much.
ec: Thanks so much!
For more information:
Steve Brand - Ambient Musician, Designer
Hanne Adam / adamned.age - Electronic Musician, Photographer, Designer
Kati Astraeir - Photographer, Painter, Visual Artist
All images and graphics courtesy of Emmalee Crane.